A Review of Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

I was put onto Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing after my mom bought it on the recommendation that it was a life-changing read. It’s built right into the title, so how could it not be, right? Social sites and reviews gave me high expectations, which I met gladly because who wouldn’t love to read about better ways to be tidy? If I haven’t mentioned it yet: I enjoy right angles. I love clean surfaces with right angles. I adore straightening items into right angles on clean, well-dusted surfaces. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not a clean freak, but I enjoy nothing more on a Saturday morning than opening the blinds and dusting every surface so that nothing is left but sunshine and ninety-degree angles. I haven’t mastered a sleeping routine that gives me time to that every Saturday, but it’s on my list of goals for the use of time. So the idea of a book that analyzes better ways to organize and keep things tidy was mind blowing! I snatched it from my mom’s coffee table before she could even crack the spine.

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With all this in mind, you’ll understand why it pains me to say that I couldn’t even finish the book. It was honestly that rough of a read for me. Part of the problem was my mindset was off; I was unprepared for how the book was contextualized. I’m hoping that the few aspects I discuss below will help you approach the book more easily if you are planning to read this book any time soon.

It’s the Japanese art of decluttering.

It’s right there in the title, but I still didn’t put it together until I was several chapters into the book. I eventually learned that Japanese culture views relationships with inanimate objects very differently than Americans do. They believe  that items have something akin to a soul and should be treated as you would want to be treated. In other words, do unto your socks as you would have them do unto you. That’s an actual example from the book  by the way; she recommends that you fold your socks in a very specific manner to allow them to breathe and rest during the night. They have served you well throughout the day after all and they deserve a vacation. It’s also good to thank your items for their hard work. Your handbag, for example: it’s best to clean it out every single day when you return home to let it rest overnight before you refill it the next day.

I get it. I fold my dress socks in half and stack them to keep the tops from overstretching, but I ball up my casual socks because they simply take up less space that way and are easier to sort through in a hurry. And I’m sure cleaning your bag out every night does keep it from becoming a Mary Poppins carpet bag that weighs a ton. But emptying it every evening? It’s all too much for me. I eventually started skimming, looking for ideas and suggestions for better ways to organize.

It’s a translation.

I’m not sure why I assumed it had been written in English; perhaps it was the lack of acknowledgment of a translator on the cover. Either way, this is a translation, through and through, and I this is where I can take a small step onto a tiny soapbox. I have a handful of degrees in English, have taught English as a Second Language, and have performed a nice load of editing in my career, so I recognize unnatural sentences easily. And there are many in this book. One poor translation that was used throughout the book on nearly every page was the word tidying, which could mean organizing, decluttering, or cleaning. I understand that it was much easier to write in Japanese, and the original probably reads beautifully in its original language, explaining why the book has sold over one million copies. However, as an English translation, the writing fell short and was awkward at times. Coupled with the lack of American culture as a context, the book felt uncomfortable as I read it. I wanted to offer it a cup of tea and a better seat by the window to see if I could loosen it up a bit for a better reading experience. It never happened.

The author is a bit on the fanatic side.

If you didn’t get it at the start of the blog post, I’ll repeat it here: I find great comfort in straightening things. I actually find it helps me de-stress, but I don’t even parallel Kondo. She discusses her childhood regularly and how she was obsessed with organizing her family’s home to the point of throwing some of her siblings’ items out because she had deemed them unnecessary…without their consent. I struggled to take her seriously at times. This was worsened for me with some of her examples. I finally shut the book for good when she discussed a client who had hired her to teach a three-year old how to tidy and keep her room clean. A three-year old. A woman paid money for Kondo to come in a spend several weeks teaching a three-year old how to tidy.

It was all too much. I couldn’t stay with it. Her premise that with the right methods everyone can learn to love tidying and folding laundry failed immediately with me when I laughed and read the line to my partner, who I occasionally have to bribe with cookies to get her fold her socks. It’s just not a feasible argument for American society.

There is still some good stuff there.

It’s not all poorly contextualized and uptight. One of the greatest messages that have been spread from her book is the idea that items should bring you joy; otherwise, they are not worth keeping. Some people take this to an extreme: “My medication doesn’t bring me joy. Can I throw it out?” Like most lifestyle aspects, you have to make it work for you, but it is a legitimate tool to help you sort items. And we used that line of thought while we were going through our possessions before our recent move. There were some items that simply didn’t bring us joy and weren’t functional. They took up space. So why did we keep them? We had no idea. We added some questions in there when guilt took over.

Can we use it how it was meant to be used or for the reason it was given to us?

Would the giver know we didn’t keep it?

Would the giver want us to hang on to it and not use it or look at it everyday?

Most of the time Kondo’s simple question did the trick, but it gave us a platform to analyze our own reasons for hanging on to items that had cluttered our closets, tables, and surfaces for the past several years. And that was a good take away for us, so I considered it worth the time spent reading the first third of the book.

Now you’re probably second-guessing yourself. Should I read it? It sounds awful. But she said there’s good stuff in there, too. What do I do?! Read it. Give it a go. If you are anything like me and have to straighten the book on the shelf as you walk down the library aisle, there’s a good chance that there is something inspiring in there for you, too. Just be open-minded when you set out to read it.

Have you read the book already? Did you find something else inspiring or helpful in the pages?

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